The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered a halt to a controversial practice in Memphis that allowed arriving aircraft to fly directly over planes on another runway. The procedure, disclosed by USA TODAY on Friday, had nearly led to midair collisions.
Starting today, the agency will direct controllers to space out arriving flights at Memphis International Airport so that planes about to land no longer pass directly over flights that have just touched down on a nearby runway, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
Pilots and controllers, who had sought for months to end the practice in Memphis, applauded the decision. "It certainly would be an improvement over what we're doing now," said Pete Sufka, president of the Memphis chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It would be much safer."
The airport used the landing procedures about half the time, Sufka said.
The Air Line Pilots Association union continues to press the FAA to stop similar practices at other airports in which planes simultaneously land or take off from nearby runways that have intersecting flight paths, said Capt. Larry Newman, the group's air-traffic chairman. Under normal conditions, these operations are safe. Even so, the pilots union says it can be difficult to keep aircraft separated if a pilot aborts a landing at the last moment and suddenly begins climbing.
Brown said safety investigators have visited several airports around the country to assess safety risks and will continue to do so. In Minneapolis, for example, the FAA altered procedures to improve safety, Brown said. The agency has not found another case like Memphis that required an outright end to procedures, she said.
A near-collision Feb. 18 between a Northwest Airlines DC-9 and a Northwest Airlink Saab 340 prompted the review of the procedure in Memphis. The Saab pilots had elected to abort their landing as they reached their runway. A controller told the Saab pilots not to climb but to "stay low" to avoid the DC-9, which was approaching for a landing on another runway. The two planes came within 500 to 700 feet of each other, according to Peter Nesbitt, an official with the Memphis controllers' union who witnessed the incident.
FAA safety investigators, who operate independently from air-traffic managers, demanded in an April 2 memo that Memphis halt the landing procedure. The procedure violated FAA rules, and local air-traffic managers were unable to provide documentation that they had ever received proper approval for it, the memo said. However, officials in the FAA's air-traffic division initially refused to stop the procedure.
"This is the way the oversight process was set up to work," Brown said. "The safety oversight office was set up to be able to take an independent look at air-traffic procedures and policies. They did that in this case and raised some concerns, and (the air-traffic division) addressed their concerns."
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